This article was written by Chris Rainey
The headline in the Cleveland Press read, “Scout Doyle is dispatched to see mysterious southpaw schoolmaster pitching phenom perform.” Nowhere in the article is the “phenom” mentioned by name, nor do they divulge where scout Billy Doyle was headed. The article does state that a telegram was received stating “Will pitch Saturday…”1 The mystery was solved when the Ironton (Ohio) Morning Irontonian reported on August 14 that Harley Dillinger had been signed by Cleveland. The first mention in the Cleveland papers came in the Cleveland Leader on August 16 along with a picture. The paper claimed that Dillinger had won 24 games and was averaging 20 strikeouts a game.
Harley Hugh Dillinger was born on October 30, 1894, in the southeastern Ohio river town of Pomeroy. He was the first child of William J. “Bill” and Henrietta “Etta” (Wise) Dillinger. A sister, Pauline, was born in 1908.The couple wed in 1892 and lived on a farm near Bedford, Ohio, owned by Philip Wise, Etta’s father. Bill helped with the farm work and was a barber. According to the Meigs County Historical Society, he also enjoyed quite a reputation as a skilled furniture-maker. According to Dillinger’s questionnaire at the Hall of Fame he attended elementary school in Pomeroy and Harrisonville, 10 miles northwest of Pomeroy. He went to high school in Rutland, Ohio, about five miles west of Pomeroy. The 1910 Census lists Dillinger as a farmer, but he was in high school and left the farm to attend nearby Rio Grande College to earn a teaching degree.
Newspaper coverage of sports was sporadic in Meigs County and adjacent Gallia County. Dillinger was mentioned as early as 1911, and by 1912 was being referred to as Lefty. He played for Rio Grande College, which had a short schedule each spring against semipro teams, colleges like Marshall University, and even some high-school squads. Dillinger pitched a no-hitter and a two-hitter against Ironton High School in early June 1913. Once the college season was finished, Dillinger pitched for anyone who wanted him, it seemed. In 1912 the Pomeroy papers reported him pitching for Pomeroy against Syracuse (an Ohio river town east of Pomeroy), then for Rutland against Syracuse. On September 1 Syracuse recruited Dillinger to face a barnstorming squad. A wicked fastball and a sharp-breaking curve helped him pile up the strikeouts and attract the attention of the Indians.
Dillinger did not see action with the Naps in 1913. He received coaching and was loaned out to local teams. Most notably, he joined a team of local “all-stars” against the Hawaiian Chinese All-Stars. Dillinger struck out 9, but also surrendered all the runs in an 8-4 loss. He went south with Cleveland in the spring of 1914. A sprained ankle curtailed his playing time and led to his assignment to Ironton in the Class D Ohio State League. Harley pitched the season opener on April 28 against Portsmouth and won 5-1 on a one-hitter. It would be nearly two months before Ironton scored that many runs again in one of his starts. Besides a lack of batting support, Dillinger was bedridden with a bad cold and missed three starts. On June 16 he won 10-4, but his arm stiffened and he lasted only three batters in his next start. The final straw in a hard-luck season came when Ironton folded because of financial issues in early July. According to the 1915 Reach Baseball Guide, Dillinger was 5-10 in 18 games and hit .068. The players were scattered around the league, but upon the insistence of scout Billy Doyle, Dillinger and two teammates were sent to the Cleveland Naps.
Cleveland team president Charles Somers owned or held shares in numerous teams besides the Naps. One of them was the Cleveland Bearcats of the American Association, transferred from Toledo to keep the Federal League out of the city. Dillinger was assigned to the Bearcats and pitched an inning for them on July 18. He was transferred to the Naps on August 8 because the Bearcats had enough left-handed pitching.2 The Bearcats and Naps both made players available to area semipro leagues. Dillinger pitched more for Galion in the Central Ohio League than he did for the Bearcats or Naps. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that he pitched a four-hit shutout on August 9 against Crestline to stretch his scoreless streak in the league to 28 innings.3 The blurring of the line between professional and amateur surely bothered some fans. Many more relished the use of major leaguers as “ringers” for their home teams, which gave them a better chance for victory. Cleveland seemed eager to supply these ringers, especially on Sunday, September 20, when they sent pitchers to three teams while Guy Morton and Rip Hagerman faced the Philadelphia Athletics at League Park. Willie Mitchell pitched for Crestline against Dillinger and Galion. Meanwhile, rookie Harvey Benn was pitching for Akron against a collegiate star, George Sisler, of Barberton.
The 1914 Naps were managed by Joe Birmingham. They dropped into last place in early July and stayed there for the remainder of the season. Dillinger was used sporadically as a reliever in his two months of action until the very end of the season, when he got two starts. His first appearance was against Detroit on August 16. He ended the season on October 3 in Detroit, tossing his only complete game and getting his only decision, a loss. The game was a microcosm of how bad things went for the Naps in 1914. Pitcher Bill Steen was at third base, catcher Johnny Bassler patrolled right field, and there were “a couple of cripples elsewhere.”4 Dillinger pitched well and led 5-3 going into the bottom of the ninth, when he walked the opposing pitcher, Jean Dubuc, and then Donie Bush on nine pitches. Steen threw away a bunt attempt and Dillinger followed with an error on a grounder from Ty Cobb that should have been a double play. The Tigers’ Sam Crawford won the game, 6-5, with a single. For the season, Dillinger pitched 33 innings in 11 games. He would never return to the major leagues.
Dillinger entered professional baseball armed with an excellent fastball, but he was a “thrower,” not a pitcher. His fastball obviously did not overpower major-league hitters. Over time he developed an excellent changeup. He became adept at moving the ball around in the strike zone and setting hitters up, and developed a fine pickoff move, but he struggled with control. One aspect of the game that Dillinger never mastered was hitting. He was 0-for-10 in the majors and usually hovered near .140 in the minors. One pundit wrote, “(F)rom his position at the plate and the way he went after the ball … no one would dream he could even foul a ball.”5
Dillinger was invited by the Indians to spring training in New Orleans in 1915. The Indians assembled their pitchers and catchers there two weeks before regular training camp opened at Athens, Georgia. He saw limited action in exhibitions before being assigned to the renamed Cleveland Spiders in the American Association. With the Spiders he appeared in five games with an 0-1 record before being dispatched to London, Ontario, in the Class B Canadian League. Dillinger struggled with the Tecumsehs. His 4-11 record was the lowest winning percentage of the team’s regulars and his runs per game were 4.5. (By contrast, Urban Shocker of Ottawa surrendered less than 3 runs per game and Tom Caesar of London led the league in win percentage.)
Then as now, left-handers were always in demand. Dillinger went to New Orleans in January of 1916 to play in a “winter” league for a semipro squad. Even though his rights were controlled by London, he stayed on in New Orleans for spring training with the Pelicans. In early exhibitions he had mixed results and the New Orleans newspapers proclaimed that he had one last chance to make the team when he faced the Cincinnati Reds on March 25. It was a very windy day and the New Orleans Item mentioned the struggle that the 5-foot-11, 170-pounder6 had maintaining his balance against the stiff breeze. In the first inning he allowed a hit and a walk before surrendering a fly ball that was blown over the outfielders for a home run. That was the extent of the Reds offense as Dillinger pitched a complete-game 4-3 victory.7 After the game the Pelicans announced that they were purchasing his contract from London.8 The Pelicans had less than 50 innings from left-handers in 1915 and manager John Dobbs was pleased with his new addition.
Dillinger pitched well in the early games, but as the season progressed he became less and less a mystery to the batters in the Southern Association. By late May he was regarded as the weakest member of the staff.9 Dillinger played his last game for New Orleans on July 25 and was released to Charleston (South Carolina) in the South Atlantic League. He refused to report.10 Instead he stayed in the New Orleans area and pitched semipro ball in the late summer and autumn.
New Orleans manager Dobbs welcomed Dillinger back to spring training in 1917. After minimal southpaw support in 1915, then 240 innings from Dillinger and Leo Townsend in 1916, Dobbs recruited as many left-handers as he could in 1917. One headline even read, “Pelican Staff Overcrowded with Southpaws.”11 The article quoted Dobbs as suggesting that Dillinger “had all kinds of stuff and ought to make us a good man.” The Pelicans played a month of exhibitions against Cleveland, the New York Giants, and college teams. Dillinger struggled and was placed on waivers in mid-April, but no one picked him up. The Pelicans held onto him as the last man on the pitching staff. He finally got a chance to pitch 10 days into the season when Dick Robertson was touched for three runs in the first inning by Atlanta. Taking the hill in the second, Dillinger held the Crackers scoreless the rest of the way in a 15-3 win. That earned him a start on April 28 against Birmingham, but he lost 8-4. On May 2 he was released to the Fort Worth Panthers in the Class B Texas League. He beat San Antonio in his first start, on May 8. At the age of 22 Dillinger was now experienced enough to have a successful season, 12-10 with a 2.38 ERA in 223 innings. His winning percentage might have been better but he toiled until August 12 before he registered a road win. After the season Dillinger returned to semipro ball in the New Orleans area. He was inducted into the Army in November and sent to basic training at Camp Pike, near Little Rock, Arkansas.
Dillinger remained in the military until early 1919. After training with the 348th Infantry, he was assigned to the 154th Infantry. In May of 1918 he was transferred to the 130th Ordnance Depot and rose to the rank of sergeant. The 130th was deployed to France, but exact duties and location cannot be determined. The unit stayed in France until March 1919 and then returned to Camp Beauregard, near Alexandria, Louisiana. Dillinger was discharged on May 12 and immediately joined the Pelicans, who had kept him on their reserve list after exercising their option with Fort Worth. A week later, he joined Fort Worth.
Manager John Atz welcomed the return of Dillinger and installed him in the rotation immediately. The “road jinx” from 1917 did not follow this time, but Dillinger still had his share of disappointments. On June 7 he lost an extra-inning affair when an outfielder dropped a fly ball. On July 5 he lost a no-hit bid on a scratch infield hit in the ninth. Dillinger’s statistics for 1919 were very similar to 1917: 216 innings pitched, 13-11 with a 2.33 ERA. The Panthers won the pennant and had a playoff with the second-place Shreveport Gassers. Dillinger relieved in the first-game loss. On October 1, with Fort Worth trailing three games to two, he went the distance in a 10-inning tie game. The Gassers won the series four games to two. Dillinger returned to New Orleans and semipro ball. The Pelicans kept their option on him for 1920, eventually selling his rights to the Boston Braves.
In the spring of 1920 the Pelicans expected Dillinger to join them in training camp. Baseball was not the only reason Dillinger wintered in New Orleans. He had met a Southern belle named Mary Louise Reilly and the couple wed in her parents’ home on Canal Street on April 19. The newlyweds traveled to Cleveland, where Lee Fohl had arranged for Dillinger to pitch for the Fleming Furniture team in the highly competitive City League. Dillinger also secured a job with the Consolidated Coal Company as a salesman. When the Fleming season ended, he was recruited by McKinney’s Steel for the Class AA National Baseball Federation championship series. He beat a Columbus, Ohio, team on September 19, recording 10 strikeouts, then pitched the Steels to the title on September 26 with a 5-4 win over Buick Motors of Flint, Michigan.
In 1921 Dillinger rejoined the McKinneys. The next year he joined a team from Mansfield, Ohio, called the Great Americans. Dillinger then turned his attention to family and work, playing only occasionally in the next few years. Eventually he took up golf and became much better hitting the golf ball than he did a baseball. The couple lived on the east side of Cleveland before moving to Shaker Heights. They were childless. Dillinger spent 30 years with Consolidated Coal, the only job he ever held besides baseball. He died after a long illness on January 8, 1959. A funeral Mass was celebrated at Our Lady of Peace Church and Dillinger was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Cleveland.12
Special thanks go to Wendy Gilkey at the Meigs County Historical Society for searching the archives to supply biographical information, and to Amy Wilson at the Rio Grande University library for her help with the archives there.
Gallipolis (Ohio) Bulletin.
The 1913 Grandian (Rio Grande College yearbook).
Mansfield (Ohio) News.
Pomeroy (Ohio) Democrat.
Pomeroy (Ohio) Leader.
Portsmouth (Ohio) Daily Times.
The Sporting News.
1 Cleveland Press, July 17, 1913.
2 Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 8, 1914.
3 Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 9, 1914.
4 Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 4, 1914.
5 Fort Worth Star-Telegram, May 9, 1917.
6 Contemporary sources list Dillinger as 5-feet-11. The author found no descriptive terms like “lanky,” “tall,” “towering,” etc., during Dillinger’s playing days that would indicate he was taller than average. However, the Hall of Fame questionnaire completed by his wife lists him at 6-feet-3. An article by Bill Keefe in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, January 13, 1959, says “(H)e must have towered 6’3”. Dillinger’s great personality made him a tremendous salesman; maybe it made him bigger than life in people’s memories.
7 New Orleans Item, March 26, 1916.
8 New Orleans States, March 26, 1916.
9 New Orleans States, May 27, 1916.
10 Charleston News and Courier, July 31, 1916. The transfer to Charleston contributed to confusion about Dillinger’s nickname. Baseball Reference and other sources refer to him as either Lefty or Hoke. Hoke Dillinger was a first baseman who played for Albany, Georgia, in the South Atlantic (SALLY) League at the time Harley was assigned to Charleston. Dillinger the pitcher listed his nickname as Lefty on his Hall of Fame questionnaire. The confusion between the two Dillingers also arose in 1922 when Hoke was a manager in Paducah, Kentucky, and Harley was pitching semipro ball in Ohio. Some sources list Harley as the Paducah manager.
11 New Orleans States, February 28, 1917.
12 Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 9, 1959.